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Niners take another step toward Super Bowl goal

(Reuters) - The San Francisco 49ers have enjoyed a great run of success the last three years but the bar is set high, with nothing less than a Super Bowl triumph needed to satisfy them.

The wild card 49ers reached the NFC Championship game for the third year in a row with their 23-10 road victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday and tied the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most appearances (15) in a conference title game since 1970.

But after an overtime loss to the New York Giants in the 2012 NFC title game and a 34-31 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in last year's Super Bowl, the Niners are determined on winning the NFL's top prize next month at the New York-area MetLife Stadium.

"We're healthy. We're a great team. We just want to do whatever it takes to get the ring," running back Frank Gore told reporters after rushing 84 yards in the win against NFC South champions Carolina.

"We didn't finish last year but we'll be back."

Standing in the way of a return to the Big Dance are San Francisco's NFC West division rivals, the top-seeded Seattle Seahawks who have won 16 of their last 17 games at home, where they will host the 49ers next Sunday.

"It's perfect," said Niners linebacker NaVorro Bowman, despite having absorbed a 29-3 drubbing the last time the teams met in Seattle in Week Two of the season. "We've been on the road, and we're winning.

"All excuses go out the window as we prepare this week and make sure we get this 'W' next week.

"They're hungry," he said about Seattle. "We're hungry. We've been (to the Super Bowl). We had a nasty taste in our mouth. It's going to be a fight."

USE MOTIVATION

The Super Bowl clash against the Ravens in New Orleans pitted 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh against Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, his brother.

The divisional playoff clash also featured some strong connections between key figures.

Former NFL quarterback Harbaugh was coaching across the gridiron from friend and former linebacker Ron Rivera, a team mate of his for six seasons with the Chicago Bears.

San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, meanwhile, enjoyed his showdown against Carolina quarterback Cam Newton.

Kaepernick and Newton were both drafted in 2011 and were roommates at the scouting combine in Indianapolis prior to the draft.

Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn, was the number one overall pick by Carolina, while Kaepernick out of Nevada was the sixth quarterback selected, taken 36th overall by San Francisco in the second round.

When Kaepernick scored on a four-yard run to boost the 49ers lead to 20-10, he parodied Newton's familiar touchdown celebration.

He pantomimed ripping open his shirt as if to reveal a Superman costume underneath, but then meekly zipped it up before kissing his own tattooed biceps in his usual celebration.

"Just a little shout-out," said Kaepernick, who has said being overlooked in the draft had bothered him. "I still don't forget."

(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York, Editing by Gene Cherry)

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